Letters to the editor

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The Mind of the Prisoner

Graeme Wood raises the specter of widespread mind control (“Prison Without Walls,” September Atlantic) when he says that after the legal and technical hurdles to monitoring criminals were overcome, “it would be a relatively simple step to extend that monitoring to any person the government considered to be ‘of interest.’” Here’s one California taxpayer who would take that future risk willingly if the control of criminals without incarcerating them yielded a reduction in the contemporary bloated expenditures on prisons, a major contributor to the state’s budget deficit.

Art Cohen
Los Angeles, Calif.

I was recently on electronic surveillance (for a domestic issue). The choice was given to me to stay in jail for 10 days (at the cost of the taxpayers) or get out of jail and be monitored by the sheriff’s office (at my cost—roughly $15 a day). I was given an ankle monitor, a home monitor that plugged into the wall, and a bulky cell phone–like contraption that could pinpoint my location and could tell if I had been drinking.

As someone who has been involved in drug and alcohol treatment in the past, this was by far the most effective means of getting me to stop drinking and follow the rules set for my release (curfew, etc.). The certainty of being caught and the fear of returning to jail were very strong deterrents to misbehaving, with freedom being the reward. Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings actually made me want to drink more, because of the constant Pavlovian reminders of what I was missing out on.

The state I live in, Oregon, spends more on prisons than on education. Why not shift this cost to the people who did the crime and save the very expensive prisons for the violent criminals who have to be locked up to keep society safe? Believe me, screwing up is not an option when the sheriff’s office is Big Brothering your every move.

Jil Heimensen
Portland, Ore.

As a life prisoner, I would not be considered for alternative incarceration. However, my view from inside the broken prison system has given me an intimate understanding of the short-term, nonviolent offender.

Graeme Wood offers important information for taxpaying citizens to consider. In his conclusion, though, Wood makes an error he shares with most prison-oriented programs: while the monitoring system Wood favors is a great idea for saving money and placing violators in the workforce, it unfortunately will not create a reformed conscience. Forty years of interaction with short-term violators at the California Institution for Women have made it clear to me that behavior modification lasts for a relatively short time. And independent reasoning does not develop, because a set of eyes is constantly observing every move the person makes.

A monitor on a person’s ankle can control where she walks; it cannot control what she is thinking. The focus always seems to be placed on the external, with hopes for an internal transformation.

In most cases, only violent offenders, in their appearances before parole boards, are required to address notions of remorse experienced and insight gained. Rarely is a nonviolent offender confronted with the simple question made famous by Jay Leno when he asked Hugh Grant, “What were you thinking?” Only with reflection does rational thinking begin to occur.

Leslie Van Houten
Corona, Calif.

Graeme Wood replies:

Leslie Van Houten says prisons without walls won’t make a criminal grow a conscience. I defer to her expert judgment. Her letter raises an interesting question: are ankle monitors and sweat-tasters methods to grow a conscience in the offender, or are they prostheses for consciences permanently amputated? I suspect that she is largely right, and that many of us have permanent moral disabilities. A GPS tracker may be no replacement for a moral sense, but perhaps it can steady a wobbly conscience about as well as a wooden leg can steady a wobbly body.

Nuclear Iran and Limited War

It seems Robert Kaplan misses something in his attempt to revive Henry Kissinger’s treatise on limited war (“Living With a Nuclear Iran,” September Atlantic). Referring to the difficulty in building public support for limited war through, as Kaplan says, “patient argument,” Kissinger said: “America can no longer engage in a conflict unless it knows it can win it.” But what isn’t mentioned in this offhand dismissal of anti-war sentiment is the third and most common possibility: a war that is easily won militarily but will almost certainly result in a political vacuum for which we cannot reasonably expect a resolution. Perhaps, as Kissinger and Kaplan argue, the door should be left open for limited warfare; there may well be imminent and even existential threats that cannot be tempered through diplomacy. But in the era of nation-states with diverse ethnic and cultural populations, perhaps held hostage by hostile and recalcitrant leadership, we have to know that while military and political objectives appear to be different, they are in fact inseparable; and where the political is not reasonably deemed solvable, the military is not advisable.

R. Curtis Bosworth
Portland, Ore.

Robert D. Kaplan quotes Henry Kissinger saying he does not consider present-day Iran to be a threat of the “same order of magnitude” as was the U.S.S.R. in the 1950s. This is, I would say, a huge understatement. An Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons is certainly alarming, and I can very much understand why Israel, the Arab states, the United States, and other nations would be concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and, therefore, use various methods to prevent its occurrence. But the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a global threat, in that it had large nuclear as well as conventional forces; it and its Warsaw Pact allies actively supplied money and weapons to Communist insurgencies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; and it consistently promoted the ideology of Marxist revolution on a worldwide basis. A nuclear Iran—while a frightening, destabilizing, and potentially highly destructive regional player—would have neither the global military nor the ideological reach that the Soviet Union did.

Joshua Miller
Oyster Bay, N.Y.

The Romance of Space Flight

Hanna Rosin’s essay on the demise of the space-shuttle program (“Earthbound,” September Atlantic) perpetuates a stereotype about NASA and the history of America’s space program. While the astronaut era may have run its course—deflating our romantic notions of sending people to Mars and beyond—the unmanned efforts have always been NASA’s genuine triumphs of science and engineering.

This is not to dismiss the courage and dedication of our proud corps of astronauts and shuttle-mission specialists. But pound for pound and dollar for dollar, our probes, telescopes, and rovers historically have yielded far greater return on the scientific investment. And as we refine our technology, more of the universe will come into view. By comparison, the shuttle is almost obsolete, and that’s why NASA must cannibalize parts from one orbiter in order to get another into space. Moreover, each shuttle mission ($400 million in launch costs alone) serves to ferry cargo to a space station that years ago succumbed to politics and lost its direction and purpose.

Had Rosin visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, rather than Kennedy Space Center, she might have written a story about our true commitment to space exploration, and the discoveries that continue to be made on an almost daily basis.

Kurt Loft
Tampa, Fla.

August 13, 2010, was my last day working on the space-shuttle program at Kennedy Space Center, and I just wanted to write to express my appreciation for Hanna Rosin’s “Earthbound,” because it really captured the spirit of how the workforce among NASA and its contractors is feeling right now. I am glad that someone outside our community appreciates that the problem isn’t just about us losing our jobs, but is legitimately about something that made this country great, and that is now slipping away from us all.

Greg Praino
Rockledge, Fla.

Hanna Rosin replies:

I agree with Kurt Loft. Unmanned space exploration is more efficient for most of the work that NASA would like to accomplish, and perhaps we should have moved toward that model more quickly. But we are undeniably losing a sense of grandeur and human possibility if we give up entirely on manned exploration. Maybe that’s a trade worth making, but it will likely limit our commitment to unmanned flights too, and to all forms of space exploration—and to the more romantic ideas that go along with it.

The Stock Market’s Future

In “The Great Stock Myth” (September Atlantic), Megan McArdle states that in 2010, for the first time, Social Security payouts to retirees and the disabled have exceeded the program’s revenues from payroll taxes. I believe that to be true. But then she says, “Infusions from the general fund are now needed if the government is to keep mailing checks.” This is not true. Infusions come from the Social Security Trust Fund, which has a surplus of $2.5 trillion, built up by the Baby Boomers during their working years, and is considered to be sufficient to meet the demand for retirees until around 2037. This fund has nothing to do with the federal budget, and Social Security has nothing to do with the federal budget deficit. At a time when so much misinformation about Social Security is being disseminated, it would be helpful if your magazine would set the record straight.

Nelson Dahl
Seattle, Wash.

One thing regarding the exceptional returns of the stock market in the ’80s and ’90s is worth mentioning: this had a lot to do with what was happening in the bond market. Interest rates fell throughout that period (and the ’00s as well), as inflation expectations were worked out. Stock prices may be considered a reflection of capitalized expectations of future earnings. And as the interest rate implicit in such capitalization dropped, stock prices went up. To put it another way, stock prices were bid up as investors found them increasingly more attractive than bonds because yields on bonds were falling.

What this means for the future is that the positive influence bonds had on stock prices is now essentially gone. If bond yields go back up, this positive influence could return someday, but to get there, unfortunately we will also have to live through a period when increasing bond yields have an opposite, negative influence on equity prices.

Randall Brubaker
San Francisco, Calif.

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether you work for GM or N.Y. or U.S.A.; it doesn’t matter if you are in a defined-benefit or defined-contribution plan—your retirement is dependent upon the earnings and productivity of your grandchildren and their friends. All of the pieces of paper in these plans are just proxies: claims on a portion of the labor of future generations.

All of these retirement schemes seemed affordable when they were new. We didn’t see why they were inexpensive: because they were built on leverage. They depended upon borrowing against the future growth of the three unsustainable pyramids: economic, population, and credit. None of those can continue forever, and as one fades, the others must take up the slack. But once all three pyramids are played out, the plans face a few stark choices: substantially raise contributions, substantially lower payouts, or go bankrupt.

Steven Flint
Manasquan, N.J.

Megan McArdle replies:

The Social Security surplus has everything to do with the federal budget. Social Security’s “trust fund” consists of special Treasury bonds; when the Social Security Administration is no longer collecting as much in payroll taxes, it will start using up those bonds to cover expenses. In order to make the payments on those bonds, the federal government will have to raise taxes, cut other spending, or borrow money in the private markets—which is exactly what the government would have to do if there were no trust fund. Social Security collected less in taxes than it paid in benefits for the first time this year, and starting late in this decade, it will be permanently in deficit. That means the federal government is going to have to find ever-increasing sums of money that it can transfer into the Social Security system.

Randall Brubaker is certainly right that stocks benefited from falling bond yields, but the relationship has gotten more complicated: the market’s flight to safety has pushed the yields on U.S. Treasury debt very low, even as other kinds of debt have seen their yields soar. The equity market has obviously also suffered, but if the market for riskier forms of debt recovers, this will probably be due to forces that will also help equities, at least a little bit.

Steven Flint is certainly correct that U.S. companies, and government at all levels, have made promises that they are unlikely to be able to keep. He is also right that this is a form of borrowing from the future, as people spend money they probably should have saved for retirement. But I am more hopeful than he about economic growth; I see no reason to think that it has “played out.”

Jeffrey Goldberg’s September cover story, “The Point of No Return,” sparked a broad, sometimes heated, conversation across the Web. To continue the discussion, The Atlantic invited distinguished panelists with backgrounds in diplomacy, nonproliferation, politics, journalism, and international affairs to engage in a two-week dialogue about the prospect of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran. The magazine’s bloggers contributed as well, and hundreds of readers weighed in on the 35 posts. To read the entire debate and share your opinion, visit www.theatlantic.com/debates/israel-iran/.

The author Robin Wright opened the forum by firmly disagreeing with Goldberg’s position that a nuclear Iran is imminent: “The United States and the many other parties now consumed with Iran’s controversial nuclear program have at least a year of intense diplomacy—and possibly much longer—before they even consider military options. And that assumes [that] diplomacy totally collapses, the Iranians can be clearly blamed, and reliable intelligence proves Tehran’s program has crossed a critical threshold. With Iran, the state of play is rarely that straightforward.”

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote to Goldberg about which country is more likely to attack: “The Israelis today are more relaxed than your article allows. This is in part because of the shift in Obama’s posture,” meaning his willingness to use force against Iran, “but also because the sanctions are beginning to bite and the Iranians are having real problems with their centrifuges … My interpretation doesn’t change your bottom line that if all these efforts fail and Obama doesn’t take action, then the Israelis likely will. But it does lower the odds of Israeli action in the next year substantially below your ‘better than 50 percent’ estimate. Indeed, I would argue that, if current trends continue, it’s actually more likely that the United States will bomb Iran than [that] Israel [will].”

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder pointed out that the U.S. and Israel are likely already taking action against Iran: “We tend to forget [about] an option that the administration is no doubt already exploiting—one that lies about halfway in between a military strike and sanctions: clandestine activity by U.S. and Western intelligence agencies. What can we do overtly? We can buy up all the loose fissile material on the market. We can trick Iran into buying faulty centrifuges. And we can conduct surgical, targeted direct-action strikes against members of the Iranian military and intelligence establishment. (I’d be genuinely surprised if Israel, in particular, weren’t already doing this.)”

Gary Milhollin, a nonproliferation expert, said a strike would probably not slow Iran for long, and would have negative consequences: “Would it be possible to find out, after the bombing, what was really hit? The answer is no—not unless Iran were invaded. Short of which, after exhibiting the inevitable civilian casualties, Iran would likely slam the door on UN inspectors and take its nuclear work underground. Popular nationalist pride will only enable this reaction, if not push hard for it. Iran could claim, with justification, that the data on its nuclear sites gathered by the present UN inspection teams has simply made it easier to target these sites. Why should Iran provide more targeting data by allowing more inspections? Even the limited knowledge we now have about Iran’s nuclear status could disappear—a casualty of military action.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a journalist and former CIA specialist, dismissed sanctions and urged military action: “Israeli calculations for a preventive strike don’t have to be conclusive to be successful. If the Israelis do nothing, they know that they would eventually be staring at an internally unstable, virulently anti-Semitic, terrorist-fond regime with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles … What the Israelis need to do is change [the Middle East] dynamic. A preventive strike offers them the only conceivable alternative for doing so.”

Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy said he doubts an attack is forthcoming: “If Israel coordinates with the U.S., then it is extremely unlikely to attack—if Washington makes that decision, then American troops will carry out the mission. Would Israel really launch such an attack without coordinating with the United States, then? If it does, then the effects on Israel’s relationship with the United States should be devastating, since this would be a nigh-unprecedented action by a putative ally placing many Americans in harm’s way and throwing into the air one of the administration’s highest priorities. What seems most plausible is that Israel hopes to use the threat of an attack as a coercive tool.”

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state, advocated diplomacy: “I am more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield. As Obama’s diplomatic game plan will take time to play out, I hope and believe he will convince Israel to avoid a precipitous use of force against Iran. It is unlikely, in my judgment, that either the U.S. or Israel will act militarily in 2011. Instead, it is far more probable that talks, sanctions, maneuvering at the UN, and a build-up of force against Iran in the Persian Gulf will extend into 2012 and beyond.”

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy enumerated the differences between the American and Israeli reasons for using military force: “Americans tend to like and embrace the Powell Doctrine: the overwhelming use of force to achieve decisive results. The view of the Israeli Defense Forces is encapsulated in the unfortunate expression ‘mow the grass’: you cannot stop the grass from growing, you will have to mow it repeatedly, but each mowing brings a temporary respite … When Americans say to Israelis that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities will only set Iran back temporarily, Israelis respond that this is all they ever expect from the use of military force—and that this is good enough.”

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace envisioned having a talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling him: “The decision to attack Iran rests heavily on one’s character assessment of the Islamic Republic. While the regime has long shown itself willing to kill its own people (per capita, Iran leads the world in executions and political prisoners), three decades of empirical evidence suggests that its paramount goal is to stay in power, not to achieve collective martyrdom … With its own arsenal of over 100 nuclear weapons—not to mention the unconditional support of the world’s greatest superpower—Israel needlessly elevates Iran by labeling it an ‘existential threat.’”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/letters-to-the-editor/308258/